An alternative form of the proverb is “hell is full of good meanings, but heaven is full of good works.” 1
The saying is thought to have originated with Saint Bernard of Clairvaux who wrote, “L’enfer est plein de bonnes volontés et désirs” (hell is full of good wishes and desires). An earlier saying occurs in Virgil’s Aeneid: “facilis descensus Averno (It is easy to go to hell)”.
The meaning of the phrase is that individuals may have the intention to undertake good actions but nevertheless fail to take action. This inaction may be due to procrastination, laziness or other subversive vice. As such, the saying is an admonishment that a good intention is meaningless unless followed through, which is notoriously difficult for common good intentions such as to lose weight through dieting or to quit smoking.
A different interpretation of the saying that is sometimes found, is that good intentions, when acted upon, may have unforeseen bad consequences. An example are the economic policies of the 1920s and 1930s. Intended to be a prudent response to the economic turmoil following World War I and the Wall Street Crash respectively, these were a major cause of the Great Depression and thus eventually of World War II in which millions of people suffered and died. Another example is the introduction of alien species such as the Asian carp, which may become a nuisance due to unexpected proliferation and behaviour.
Psychological studies of the effect of intention upon task completion by professors Peter Gollwitzer, Paschal Sheeran and Sheina Orbell indicate that there is some truth in the proverb. Perfectionists are especially prone to have their intentions backfire in this way. When judging intentions, people are more likely to interpret good intentions for their own actions than they are for those of others.
Attempts to improve the ethical behaviour of groups are often counter-productive. If legislation is used then people will observe the letter of the law rather than improving the desired behaviour. During negotiation, groups that are encouraged to understand the point of view of the other parties do worse than those whose perspective is not enlightened. The threat of punishment may worsen ethical behaviour rather than improving it. Studies of business ethics indicate that most wrongdoing is not due directly to wickedness but is performed by people who did not plan to err.
Stephen Garrard Post, writing about altruism, suggests that good intentions are often not what they seem and that mankind normally acts from less worthy, selfish motives — “If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, it is partly because that is the road they generally start out on.”
In the movie, Highway to Hell, the phrase is taken literally to create one particular scene. The Good Intentions Paving Company has a team of Andy Warhols who grind good-intentioned souls into pavement. “I was only sleeping with my husband’s boss to advance his career”, says one.
- ^ “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, Proverbs, Infobase Publishing, 2007, p. 234, ISBN 9780816066735
- ^ Christine Ammer (1997), The American Heritage dictionary of idioms, ISBN 9780395727744
- ^ Mrs E. B. Mawr (1885), “Hell is paved with good intentions”, Analogous Proverbs In Ten Languages, Elliot Stock
- ^ “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Dictionary.com. The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005. Accessed March 28, 2013.
- ^ “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Dictionary.cambridge.org. Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus, Third Edition. Cambridge University Press, 2008. Accessed March 28, 2013.
- ^ Harry Collis, Mario Risso (1992), “The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions”, 101 American English proverbs, ISBN 9780844254128
- ^ Charles L. Bowden; Alvin George Burstein, eds. (1983). Psychosocial Basis of Health Care. Williams & Wilkins. p. 98. ISBN 0-683-00993-1.
- ^ Thomas Emerson Hall, J. David Ferguson (1998), The Great Depression: an international disaster of perverse economic policies, ISBN 9780472066674
- ^ Izzy Kalman (August 16, 2010), Principle Number One: The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions, “A Psychological Solution to Bullying”, Psychology Today
- ^ Peter Gollwitzer, Paschal Sheeran (2006-05-30), “Implementation intentions and goal achievement”, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 38, ISBN 9780120152384
- ^ Powers, T. A. (2005), “Implementation Intentions, Perfectionism, and Goal Progress: Perhaps the Road to Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions”, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 31 (7): 902–912, doi:10.1177/0146167204272311
- ^ Justin Kruger, Thomas Gilovich (2004), “Actions, Intentions, and Self-Assessment: The Road to Self-Enhancement Is Paved with Good Intentions”, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 30 (3): 328–339, doi:10.1177/0146167203259932, PMID 15030624
- ^ David Messick (2006-07-11), “The Road to Hell”, Ethics in groups 8, pp. 273–274, ISBN 9780762313006
- ^ Laura L. Nash (1993), Good intentions aside: a manager’s guide to resolving ethical problems, ISBN 9780875844299
- ^ Stephen Garrard Post (2002), Altruism & altruistic love, Oxford University Press, p. 203, ISBN 9780195143584
- ^ Robert Conger Pell (1857), Milledulcia
- ^ Karl Marx, Capital
- ^ John Kenneth Muir (2011), Horror Films of the 1990s, McFarland, p. 236, ISBN 9780786440122